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On Sept. 17, 1964, Michael Cobden stepped up to the home of an undercover police agent in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, and rang the doorbell. He was 24 and working as a reporter for the Rand Daily Mail, a scrappy anti-apartheid newspaper.

The man, who had recently been named in a sabotage trial, opened the door and struck Mr. Cobden with a large leather belt. He spewed expletives and slammed the door.

Undeterred, the young journalist rang the doorbell again. Later, he sued the man for civil damages.

Suitably skeptical, the judge said, "Come, come Mr. Cobden, you're not a lily in a hothouse." (In the end, Michael was awarded the equivalent of $150 in damages.) The judge was spot on.

Throughout Mr. Cobden's illustrious career as a journalist at the Rand Daily Mail, the Toronto Star and the Kingston Whig-Standard – and also as director and instructor at the University of King's College School of Journalism in Halifax – his relentless devotion to social justice, crusty curiosity and unapologetic perfectionism assured no one ever mistook him for a hothouse flower.

Mr. Cobden died of acute myeloid leukemia on Dec. 24 in Halifax at age 77. He leaves his wife, Jane; children Josh, Joe and Daisy; and grandchildren Jane and Livie.

Though his colleagues and students often described him as intimidating and critical, his eldest son, Josh, 48, (from Mr. Cobden's first marriage, to Gabrielle Blair) says he was really just optimistic about what people could achieve.

"He didn't come across as a glass-half-full guy or Pollyanna by any stretch, but when it came to what he believed in and expected people could accomplish, his half-empty glass sort of ran over with optimism," Josh said.

"If he was hard on you, it was just because he thought you could do better."

Michael Cobden was born in Johannesburg on March 18, 1940, the second of two sons of Sarah Marsh (née Davidson) Cobden, a Montreal-born psychologist who was educated at the University of Toronto, and Harry Cobden, who managed a factory that made trousers.

When he was around eight years old, his mother became ill and he was sent to Kingswood College, a boarding school in Grahamstown, South Africa, where corporal punishment was a daily occurrence. This proved difficult for Michael who, even in the early days, was known for challenging authority.

At 18, he started out in journalism at the Johannesburg weekly newspaper the Jewish Herald and the Benoni City Times, a weekly outside the city.

In 1962, he began at the Rand Daily Mail, reporting fearlessly on violent crime in Soweto and how the apartheid regime exploited black people.

Bernard Melunsky met Mr. Cobden at the Rand Daily Mail and the two later became lifelong friends.

"He had this great style and he also wrote with great perceptiveness," said Mr. Melunsky, who now lives in London.

"I found him a bit reserved, but underneath that crust I very soon discovered a certain shyness and a very, very warm, sensitive, caring person."

While working at the Rand Daily Mail, Mr. Cobden helped start a library in the Alexandra Township. He was devastated when, the night before it was set to open, the police raided it and burned the books.

Frustrated that Johannesburg would never change, he and his wife moved to Toronto in 1968.

Armed with a glowing reference letter, within three days of their arrival he had a job at the Toronto Star, where he remained until 1975.

He started out on the rewrite desk, later becoming assistant city editor and an editorial writer, while also completing a bachelor of education degree at U of T.

Journalist Harvey Schachter worked under Mr. Cobden at the Toronto Star.

"He sparkled as a writer. He was a very challenging person in many ways and sometimes it could be exasperating, but when you reflect back on it, it was the best kind of challenge because it was around an idea," Mr. Schachter said.

Around 1970, while at the Star, Mr. Cobden launched a community newspaper called the Toronto Citizen with the late Arnold Amber, a fellow Star journalist. The paper was outspoken against Pierre Trudeau's invocation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis and criticized the Spadina Expressway plan, which the government cancelled in 1971 due to a public outcry.

Mr. Cobden was a single father when he began a new job as information officer of the Toronto Board of Education in 1975.

There, he met his future wife, Jane Morley, a school social worker.

Ms. Cobden said she knew he was the one when she witnessed him greet his son after school. "Michael just picked him up, held him and said 'This is my Joshi!'" Ms. Cobden said.

The couple married in 1977 and the next year Joe was born.

Mr. Cobden worked for the Kingston Whig-Standard from 1979 to 1988, part of the legendary team of journalists who put the small daily newspaper on the map, earning it multiple national newspaper awards.

Mr. Schachter remembers Mr. Cobden at the Whig-Standard as being "wonderfully supportive."

"When he was the editor of the Whig-Standard, he was wonderful to work for and this was a big surprise because he had been so challenging," he said.

Mr. Schachter recalled Mr. Cobden striving for perfection in his writing, poring over his words while smoking cigarettes at his computer terminal.

In 1988, Mr. Cobden accepted a post as director of the University of King's College School of Journalism. Stephen Kimber, a journalism professor there, described him as a "blunt force" and said he could be intimidating.

"He would say things that if you wanted to, you could take offence at. … He had a way of essentially saying to you that you weren't doing enough, that you weren't as good as you should be, whether that was as a student journalist or as an academic," Mr. Kimber said. "But having said that, the more I got to know him, the more I respected where he was coming from and what he was trying to do. Then as time went on, I realized what a wonderful person he was: generous, giving, supportive."

During Mr. Cobden's tenure as director from 1998 to 2005, Mr. Kimber said, he was instrumental in bridging the divide between the academic and trade school aspects of King's. As a journalism professor, he became known as a hands-on, passionate instructor who, above all else, wanted to see his students succeed.

The annual awards for students and faculty were called the Golden Cobdens – beer bottles sprayed in gold.

As one of his former students, this reporter witnessed both his defiance and his warmth when the magazine our class produced became embroiled in controversy.

The Halifax Regional School Board spiked a plan to distribute our magazine in junior schools after deeming it too salacious. (It had a piece on bras, swimsuit photos and a Q&A by sex advice columnist Dan Savage.)

Never one to retreat, Mr. Cobden rounded us up, filled his trunk with boxes of the magazine and called several local TV news stations.

We arrived at a junior high school just on time for dismissal. When the bell rang, we were on the sidewalk handing out copies to students as they streamed from the building. Mr. Cobden hung back, leaning against his car and beaming with pride.

The arrival of his daughter, Daisy, began a new chapter in his family life.

He and his wife decided to adopt after watching a BBC documentary about Chinese state orphanages. It was 1997 when a social worker showed the couple a photo of a Chinese girl and asked them to take it home and consider it.

They didn't have to.

"We both said 'This is our daughter,'" Ms. Cobden recalled. "We're not going to think about this. This is our daughter."

After retiring from King's in 2005, Mr. Cobden kept busy with various projects, most notably writing a biography of Holocaust survivor Simon Spatz, teaching journalism in India and teaching writing and ESL at Dalhousie University.

He was often envious of the candour with which his wife and her female friends shared their feelings and so in his last days he encouraged his closest friends, including Chris Murphy, to be more heartfelt and say "I love you."

The last time they spoke, Mr. Murphy leaned in and told his friend to "take care."

Mr. Cobden would have none of it.

In his clipped South African accent, he repeated the mantra he truly believed for himself and everyone in his life. He said: "Chris, you can do better."

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